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The Burma connection: an Internet too civilized

Burma's regime has one of the most repressive policies for the Internet. With bloggers being imprisoned up to 35 years and networks being blocked, it is possible to circumvent this censorship?

by Olivier Tesquet On June 17, 2011

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À propos de l'auteur

Jeune journaliste issu de l'école géopolitique, j'ai quelques marottes, comme les libertés numériques, le LOL et les enquêtes à tiroirs. Embarqué dans la Soucoupe depuis août 2010, je collabore également à Slate.fr, Snatch et Technikart. Disclaimer: je porte des chemises à carreaux.

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In Burma, the average monthly wage is $30. DSL costs a monthly $120, plus an installation fee of $1000. In a country where the majority of the population logs on to the network in cybercafes because of the lack of domestic equipment, the state’s infrastructure is stuck in the 90s – when broadband didn’t exist, fiber optics had not yet been invented, and the average consumer clung to a 20 hour Internet package.

Yet the outdated technology is only a part of the situation. There is also highly effective censorship, placing the country on Reporters Without Border’s Internet Enemies list. Out of the 12,000 IP addresses distributed to local access providers (all subservient to the regime), only about 100 respond. Activist and hacker Jacob Appelbaum sums up the situation in these terms:

Almost every network in Burma is blocked from the outside world.

The country only has three access providers. The largest being represented by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication (MPT), which allows the state to keep the network under its thumb. While Iran is seriously considering equipping itself with a national intranet that would facilitate censorship even further, Burma’s model appears to be one of the most oppressive in the world. It’s strictly supervised by a small range of laws which barely respect human rights and freedom of expression.

The French company, Alcatel-Lucent, provides the infrastructure for control. While filming a documentary there, French journalist Paul Moreira discovered the telecommunications giant sold its technology as “legal interception” in partnership with China. In jargon, this advanced equipment has another name: the “Deep Packet Inspection” (DPI). Specifically, it allows a state to filter and read the electronic exchanges of its population – making it a formidable weapon to track dissidents. To dismiss the extent of Alcatel’s involvement, one of its executives spun the following rhetoric: “What is better? Limited communications or no communications at all?”

This is probably not the line of reasoning for Zarganar, Nay Phone Latt, and “Nat Soe,” three bloggers imprisoned for expressing their opinions too publicly. They are currently serving sentences between 10 to 35 years. In 2007 and 2010, the government refined its repressive system, such as rationing the use of the Internet to six hours per day. It’s no coincidence that some speak of the “Myanmar Wide Web” – an ironic reference to the World Wide Web – in mentioning the lock on Burma.

Initiatives as being developed to attempt to circumvent this firewall. Barcamp’s first event was organized in Yangonon on January 23 and 24, 2010, which brought together roughly 2,700 participants. Their goal was to raise awareness of digital issues through education. In 2011, more than 4,000 people assembled at Info-Tech (an area dedicated to new technologies) to speak about Facebook and Twitter. This is an incredible feat in a country where the wifi network’s bandwidth performance is slightly better than a 56K modem. What is more, it’s especially a great way to snub the authorities.

Photo Credits: FlickR CC  TTCPressGusedsM3li55@
Translation: Stefanie Chernow

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